It was the biggest scandal of Dalton McGuinty’s political career, and BlackBerrys were buzzing as his fixers worked late into a Saturday evening, crafting a strategy to stem the growing backlash over his decision to shut down the legislature.
One e-mail suggested the aides “leak” new details about their boss’s plans to run for the federal Liberal leadership – an erroneous story they had already planted. They would also line up interviews with a select few television and radio hosts, where the embattled premier could defend his decision to prorogue the Ontario legislature while avoiding the Queen’s Park press gallery.
And perhaps they should even go on the offensive, running radio ads attacking the Opposition Leader’s spouse.
“We need a parallel news/controversy plan also for this week that is as salacious as the bullshit,” says one aide’s e-mail.
The e-mails are among the latest wave of documents released in connection with Mr. McGuinty’s politically motivated decision to cancel two gas-fired power plants. The high cost of scrapping the projects – $585-million at last count – is at the heart of opposition accusations that the government abandoned plans to build the electricity plants in Oakville and Mississauga to save Liberal seats during the 2011 provincial election.
Read annotated highlights from these emails here.
Yet in many ways, the e-mails transcend a particular scandal. They provide a rare glimpse into the backrooms of power, where unelected political aides spin journalists, muzzle cabinet ministers and use feel-good announcements to deflect attention from a crisis.
More than 1,300 documents recently released to a legislative committee probing the cancelled power plants provide a peek inside Mr. McGuinty’s inner circle. The nucleus of this circle included individuals who did not officially work in Mr. McGuinty’s office: his brother, Brendan; Don Guy, the strategist behind the Liberals’ three campaign victories and a former chief of staff to the premier; and Chris Morley, also a former chief of staff. Laura Miller, the premier’s deputy chief of staff, became a key member of this group in June, 2012, when she assumed responsibility for communications.
For several months after the 2011 election, the government succeeded in stalling the investigation into the power plants by refusing to release documents to a legislative committee.
But the scandal started to heat up last September, when the Speaker of the Legislature ruled there was evidence that then-energy minister Chris Bentley breached his privileges by refusing to release the documents. The ruling left him facing a rare contempt of Parliament censure.
The initial response from the premier’s office? Announce that the government will ban the use of tanning beds by people under the age of 18, something a political staffer said in an e-mail will “make a fabulous headline in Saturday papers.”
The strategy worked. Most major newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, carried the story. But tanning beds turned out to be a fleeting distraction.
Attention soon turned to a looming deadline for the government. The Speaker said in his ruling that all three parties must reach an agreement by Sept. 24 on when to release the documents.
The e-mails suggest the premier’s office and government House Leader John Milloy had different interpretations of the ruling. Mr. McGuinty said the documents did not necessarily have to be released that day. But Mr. Milloy said the government planned to honour that deadline.
Ms. Miller accused the House Leader of not sticking to his “key” messages. In an e-mail to the premier’s press secretary, she mused about muzzling him. “I know we have this preference to put out elected officials,” she says. “But strike him off the list. This is the second time he’s done this.”
In politics, Ms. Miller said in an e-mail response to The Globe, “wires get crossed on occasion. In this instance, I chose to express frustration in a private email exchange and then move on.”
As it turned out, Mr. Milloy continued to speak for the government and some documents were released Sept. 24.
The latest e-mails show Mr. McGuinty’s closest advisers switching into high-gear damage-control mode the same evening he held an emergency news conference last Oct. 15. (The e-mails contain several references to The Globe’s stories.)
Minutes after Mr. McGuinty made his surprise announcement that he was proroguing the legislature and stepping down after nine years in office, The Canadian Press’s Ottawa bureau broke the story that he was planning a jump to federal politics. In the immediate aftermath, the leak helped divert attention from the controversial shutdown of the legislature, including committee hearings.
Five days later, Mr. McGuinty’s advisers hatched plans on how to handle his resignation. Mr. Guy talked about keeping the federal leadership story alive for a bit longer.
“I think we also leak tomorrow that the Premier has been taking calls this weekend and is discussing the leadership with his family with an intention of making a decision early this week,” he says in an e-mail on Oct. 20.
At the same time, however, Mr. Morley was discussing plans for killing the story. Shortly before Mr. McGuinty is interviewed by television host Steve Paikin next Tuesday, he says, they should give the story to CP reporter Joan Bryden – who got the initial leak – that the premier has decided against running federally.
“She’s been promised the story either way the decision goes, so he can’t blurt it out in a scrum,” he says.
CP reported last Oct. 23 that Mr. McGuinty wouldn’t be challenging Justin Trudeau after all.
It was Mr. Guy who suggested going on the offensive, with something “salacious.” His proposed target? Deb Hutton, the wife of Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak, and once the chief of staff to former premier Mike Harris. The plan was to spread the perception that she was the stronger personality in the relationship with Mr. Hudak.
“Finally, we need a daily attack on the Hutton-Hudak connection,” Mr. Guy says in the Oct. 20 e-mail. “Perhaps release a video? Radio ads?”
Mr. Guy said in an e-mail response to The Globe that he wanted an “alternative narrative” to gas plants, and the plan was to launch a broad-based attack that would have included a number of elements.
“You think about a lot of contingences in politics,” he told The Globe, “but some are wrong and the Premier would have vetoed it so we never pursued it.”